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When I arrived at the offices of the Petit Family Foundation, located in sleepy downtown Plainville, CT, the first thing that struck me was how unassuming their office space was. In fact, they share it with an advertising company, using just two rooms. There is nothing to indicate the large amount of charitable giving that is generated from here. I was greeted by friendly staff from both companies who made me comfortable while I waited for Dr. Petit, or as he is known here, Bill.
When he arrived a few minutes later, I was led to a nearby office that belonged to a executive of the advertising company, shared space for a meeting. “Why don’t you sit behind the desk?” Bill asked immediately. “Why me behind the desk?” I said, a bit surprised. “Well, you’re the one with writing to do” he replied. So there I sat, behind that massive desk, and Bill sat across from me in a chair.
As you may recall, Dr. Petit’s wife, Jennifer, and his two daughters, Hayley and Michaela, were murdered in a home invasion in Cheshire, CT in July 2007. Their house was then set on fire. That is not the subject of this article, but in order to explain what the Foundation does, some history is necessary. I asked Bill first about how the Petit Family Foundation began and about its mission. He replied, “Well, it started, of course, after that night when I lost my family and my house was burned. I was numb, and I had no place to go. At first I stayed with my parents, and I didn’t want to see anyone. I was numb, I cried, and then I was numb again. But I was fortunate that I had many supportive friends and family to help me. They tried to draw me out, but I wasn’t interested at first. After a while, friends started just stopping over and saying, “Come on Bill, we’re going fishing.” The fact that they did that kind of thing made a big difference. My mother would knock on my door and offer me a ginger ale. Just a ginger ale, but the fact that she reached out was helpful. Meanwhile, the donations started flooding in immediately from everywhere: money, artwork, letters, and self-help books. I must have over 300 self-help books. The donations came from all over the country and all over the world! At the time, I did very little reading, as it was hard to focus.”
“Then in August of 2007 some friends proposed an idea that the donations should be used for some charitable purpose, but initially, we didn’t know what.”
“First, we decided to fund three scholarships; one at Miss Porters School, which Hayley had attended, one at Chase Collegiate School, which Michaela had attended, and one at Cheshire Academy, where my wife, who was a pediatric nurse, had worked. Then we founded a special fund called Hayley’s Hope and Michaela’s Miracle, for those affected by multiple sclerosis. My wife had MS. You can find the link on the MS Society Site.”
“Then in December of 2007 the Board (of 12) met, and we decided to become a 501c3. Papers were filed in 2007, the 501c3 letter arrived in 2008, and the Petit Family Foundation was formed. In Oct of 2007 we had already had our first Golf Tournament to benefit the foundation. It took 3-5 months to come up with a Mission Statement. It was three-fold: 1) to benefit the education of young people, especially women who were going into the sciences, 2) to help and protect victims of violence, and 3) to benefit those with chronic illnesses and their families.”
I asked Bill to speak specifically to what has been done in each of these three areas in the years since the Foundation began. “My friend Dennis Chapman had the idea to do some horticulture work with the Science Center, and he started Michaela’s Garden, a rooftop garden at the Science Center where Michaela’s favorite flowers, Four O’Clocks, are grown. The seeds are then harvested and replanted, and some are sold to benefit the Petit Family Foundation. We wanted to encourage families and youth to become more involved in community gardening.”
(Authors note: The original Four O’Clocks were dug up and removed from the Petit property, as little else was salvageable. All the seeds are reproduced from the original plants. It is a lovely way to remember Michaela.)
Bill added, “Hayley was interested in science. Shortly before she died, she had expressed an interest in becoming a doctor. We began working with the CT Science Center in Hartford by funding the First Women in Science Mentorship Award.”
Bill continued, “About 50-60% of the grant proposals go to domestic violence programs. The rest goes to education and programs supporting those with chronic diseases. We prefer to give to smaller groups in order to help those that would not otherwise get funding, such as those with rare diseases. We like to give to programs rather than individuals, so that we can help the most people. We gave $100,000 three years ago to the Channel 3 Kids Camp so they could construct a new health center. It’s named after my wife, the Jennifer Hawke-Petit Health Lodge. They can now accommodate children with chronic illnesses and disabilities. We also gave $100,000 to the CT Science Center.”
I asked Bill to talk about the Petit Family Foundations major fundraisers. He named three annual events, the Golf Tournament, which began in 2007, the Road Race in July, and the motorcycle Ride for Justice, in September. Bill added that the Petit Family Foundation first sponsored a Women in Science Gala in the Green Gallery at the Science Center, and that now they have their own Green Gala each year, at which the Foundation awards its Mentorship Prize. In regard to the Petit Family Foundation’s greatest successes, he said, “We have given millions in grants just this year.”
Asked whether he works full-time for the foundation now, Bill replied, “Yes, that is, as many hours as are necessary. I take no salary, zero. I’m a volunteer. Everybody here is a volunteer, with the exception of two office staff members. Even they come in on weekends and volunteer.” Bill said that there was never a lack of volunteers. They come back, and others just keep volunteering.
When asked him what types of organizations are eligible for grants through the Petit Family Foundation, and which he would especially encourage to apply, Bill replied, “We must commit to programs that benefit larger numbers of people, no one-on-one scholarships. For example, we funded an anti-bullying program. Initially we funded three scholarships for women in the sciences through the Plainville Rotary, named for Jennifer, Hayley, and Michaela, but now we fund programs and projects, rather than individuals”. He said that nonprofits are encouraged to apply, as well educational programs that address domestic violence and protect its victims. In addition, programs that promote wellness for those with chronic illness and their families are encouraged to apply.
Given the many grants for organizations listed on the website, I asked Bill if any of them were especially meaningful to him. He thought long and hard about this question, then he replied “The MS Society, particularly the Hayley’s Hope and Michaela’s Miracle fund, The Prudence Crandall Center, that does primary prevention of domestic violence, and domestic violence shelters such as the Susan B. Anthony House in Torrington, Safe Haven in Waterbury, Safe Futures in New London, the YWCA of Greenwich, and Interval House in Hartford.’
Asked if there was anything else he would like to add about the Foundation that we had not discussed, or that he was particularly proud of, Bill answered, “I love the program at the Science Center. Often in junior high, girls drop out of science, but this encourages them to be interested in science again. They work on the Seeds of Hope and the Plants of Change Project. I like the 3-year grant to Plainville Middle School that expands their science curriculum. This is extra, beyond the school budget. The kids can analyze blood samples to determine the sex and paternity of a child. They do fingerprints and analyze DNA. At New Britain High School, there is the Health Academy. The smallest donation is one of my favorites: At Bulkeley High School in Hartford, it’s a melting pot, kids from all over the world. Mrs. Hoffman there has a knitting club. I know it seems like a small thing, but the kids in the knitting club make friends, and they donate the things they knit to the CT Children’s Medical Center. Mrs. Hoffman got a $500 grant which she uses for knitting materials. A drop in the bucket, and she only took it as she needed it.”
“The best thing about the Petit Family Foundation is the outpouring of people, friends and volunteers who work with us. They come from 48 of the 50 states and 20 countries. No one takes anything out of the grants; 100% goes to the recipients.”
We then discussed causes Bill would like to promote in the future. He said he would like to do more for people affected by MS, to help the parents of those children, and to provide respite opportunities for caregivers, supporting families who are dealing with chronic illness to get out to a concert or a sporting event, or a weekend away. He also would like to see more educational conferences about illnesses.
Finally, I asked Bill if he had any advice for widows and widowers who were seeking their own path forward after a loss. He gave this a great deal of thought, and he spoke from the heart, “Get help. It’s critical to get help, don’t be afraid. And accept the help that is offered by friends and family, don’t push them away. Get out and do something, such as volunteer at church, the Elks, or the Rotary.”
“And to those who are concerned about the widow or widower, be proactive. The person who has experienced a loss is not going to ask for help. Show up, take them out, bring food, and if you say you’re going to call, then call. I got pulled, cajoled, and ultimately it worked. Reading books sometimes helps”. Bill decided that he may pay it forward, giving some of the many books he received to those who need them now.
The activities of the Petit Family Foundation are not the future Bill perceived for his life. He never asked for any of this to happen in the first place. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But “helping people”, a phase he uses often, has become his way to move forward. The Petit Family Foundation motto is, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”, and that is what he does every day.
For more information, or to donate, visit www.petitfamilyfoundation.org.